transport

Edison was right about the electric car

“Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile.” That was Henry Ford in 1914, writing to a friend.

Thomas Edison, a good friend of Ford’s and a partner in the scheme, confirmed the plans. As far as he was concerned, electric traction would be the end of oil. “I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future.”

The Edison Ford electric car never saw the light of day, for a variety of reasons. Both men would develop, own and drive electric cars, through their respective companies and as collaborators. Ford’s wife Clara always drove electric, because you didn’t have to crank it to start it. So did the First Lady, and there were electric cars in the garage of the White House through to the late 1920s. Nevertheless, it was internal combustion engines that ultimately won the day, in large part due to the power of the oil companies.

The fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on motoring has lasted over a century, but Edison wasn’t wrong when he imagined that the cars of the future would be electric. He was just a hundred years too early – because yesterday the Ford company announced that it would be 100% electric in Europe by 2030.

Ford’s news comes just two weeks after General Motors announced that it would no longer produce petroleum powered cars by 2035. They join Volkswagen, which will release its last combustion engine cars in 2026, and Volvo, which was the first to move and announced its phase out of fossil fuels back in 2017.

It isn’t just cars either. In December 2020 the Truckmakers Alliance said that they would stop making petrol trucks by 2040. A little later than we might like, but it’s happening. The Alliance includes some of the brands just mentioned, along with Scania, Iveco, Man and others. Edison was right about that too. “All trucking must come to electricity”, he said.

I’ve written before about how the world could have had electric vehicles a century ago, in the form of London taxis and buses. Or how a company started building a network for swappable batteries for electric cars in 1938 – an idea still considered radical today. We have had many opportunities to switch to electric, and the world may have looked, sounded and smelled very different today if we had. But better late than never.

Electric cars are not the only solution to sustainable transport – that starts further back – but we certainly won’t get there without them. And with more and more car companies committing to the technology, the end of the fossil fuel era is finally in sight.

2 comments

  1. Jeremy, please calculate how many more wind turbines and PV panels we will need to power all these EVs, in addition to all the extra ones we will need to generate the green hydrogen for cememnt and steel making. Then work out the amount of rare earth metals that will be needed for all the magnets, motors and batteries. Are these volumes remotely feasible in the time assumed? Personally, I do not think so.
    In which case, we need other approaches, including synthetic hydrocarbons especially for the harder applications such as trucks, big ships and aircraft.

    1. I don’t for a moment think that EVs can or should be a straight swap for petrol cars. The first step is to reduce the need to travel, then walk or cycle. Public transport is ultimately far more important than private cars. However, we do also need some cars, and that fleet will need to be 100% electric.

      I’m the wrong person to attempt all those calculations! But they are being done. See the National Grid on future charging infrastructure and electricity supply – they’re well ahead of the issues on that.

      As for rare metals, much of that depends on recycling: https://earthbound.report/2019/03/14/recycling-networks-for-an-electric-transport-revolution/

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